two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-The Painter of BattlesWorld-weary war photographer Andrés Faulques has retired to an isolated castle where he obsessively paints a mural that intertwines violent memories with his favorite battle paintings. An unexpected visitor arrives one day—a former Croatian soldier, Ivo Markovic, whose picture, taken during the Battle of Vukovar, brought Faulques instant fame at the cost of everything Markovic valued. Markovic announces that he intends to kill Faulques, but, he explains, "I need for us to talk first; I need to know you better, to be sure that you realize certain things." In the days that follow, the two men debate human nature, morality, fate, and the relationship between life and art.
Random House. 224 pages. $25. ISBN: 1400065984

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"This astute, heart-rending, remarkable novel by the Spanish author of the historical series that features Captain Alatriste raises so many terrifying and all-too-human enigmas and dilemmas that it will take your breath away. … The beauty of Pérez-Reverte’s spell-binding, disturbing novel lies in the author’s rich and lyrical prose with its images of death, volcanoes, bodies leaking blood, victims and victimizers, celebrated paintings of massive massacres, ravaged landscapes and shattered cities." Sam Coale

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In what may be his most personal novel yet, Pérez-Reverte draws on his lengthy experience as someone who has witnessed and reflected on war without ever actually participating in combat. … The narrative development may sometimes move slowly or seem repetitive, but Pérez-Reverte is a skillful architect of the tension between the retired photographer and his former subject, of those who witness and take photographs and those who fight, kill, beat, and torture." Katie Goldstein

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Laying on page after page of this philosophical rhetoric, the way his artist hero slathers parts of his mural in paint, tends to amplify Faulques’ fate, as Pérez-Reverte elevates his novel above the level of the merely entertaining pages of King and Grisham. It also, alas, reminds American readers of the sublime rhetoric of Faulkner and how such passages in the hands of a master can add to the momentum of the story and how, in instances such as this, it can also drown out the music of the plot." Alan Cheuse

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Painter of Battles is a strange book, much of its material shoehorned cornily into its flashbacks, its central dialogue straining under the moral weight placed upon it; it’s a messy clash between showing and telling. And yet in a way it also becomes the mural of which it tells, drawing a perfectly obsessive, claustrophobic panorama." Steven Poole

San Antonio Exp-News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Painter of Battles is an intoxicating mix blending philosophy, art history and treatises on the nature of love, the elusiveness of justice, man’s inhumanity to man, human cruelty, the utility of war and the necessity of revenge. … Trouble is, this cocktail is light on the essential ingredient: story." Steve Bennett

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"The reader feels remarkably distant from these horrors, perhaps because the perpetrators have such drawn-out pseudo-intellectual discussions about who feels the least, who committed the worst wrongs. And perhaps it’s because these discussions are interspersed with cumbersome descriptions of the mural the photographer is painting and how it relates to other works of Western battlefield art." Lorraine Adams

Los Angeles Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, Faulques’ extensive philosophical ramblings—as well as flashbacks to his life as a war photographer—soon begin to impinge on the novel’s forward progress. … By Page 50 or so, the novel’s philosophical ambitions and stop-and-start structure become insurmountable problems." Richard Zimler

Critical Summary

"It’s the nearest I’ve got to a personal memoir," explains best-selling Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who drew extensively on his experience as a war correspondent while writing The Painter of Battles. A departure from his highly regarded thrillers and historical dramas (Captain Alatriste, 4 of 5 Stars Selection, Sept/Oct 2005; Purity of Blood, 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2006), it received mixed reviews from the critics. The novel, developing slowly through lengthy philosophical discussions and flashbacks, troubled some reviewers who wanted more plot and forward momentum; however, others overlooked this deficiency and praised Pérez-Reverte’s lush prose and keen insight into human nature. "Readers who prefer action to intellectual discussion, especially when accompanied by coolly objective descriptions of the appalling things men do to each other, will prefer to leave this novel on the shelf" (Sunday Times).

Cited by the Critics

Embers | Sandor Márai, translated from the Hungarian by Carol Janeway (2001): An old man is summoned to the crumbling castle of a former friend after four decades of separation. There, he is forced to relive the final days of their close friendship and the act of betrayal that split them forever.

A Closed Book | Gilbert Adair (1999): Narrated almost entirely through dialogue, this psychological thriller explores the relationship between an award-winning author permanently blinded in a horrifying car crash and the man he hires to help him write his first book since the accident.